THE ART OF UNCONTROLLED FLIGHT

By Kim Ponders

HarperCollins. 183 pp. $19.95

Kim Ponders, one of the few women to serve as a war-zone pilot in the U.S. Air Force, has enough material for three great books in her brief debut novel, The Art of Uncontrolled Flight. Much of the story sounds strikingly autobiographical, but the first and best section has nothing to do with her unusual adventures in the Middle East. It presents an idyllic suburban childhood that turns with a few deft lines to a disoriented adolescence. Looking back at herself as a 6-year-old girl, Annie, the narrator, sees how deeply she idolized her fighter-pilot father, and we can see how congenially he humiliated her mother with a series of affairs that drove her to distraction -- and finally to death. It's beautifully done, haunting and sad, with a sense of withheld judgment that mourns these events without making villains of anyone.

After the death of Annie's mother, the narrative shifts to the third person, and Annie moves from house to house with her father and his various girlfriends until the Air Force Academy offers the structure long missing from her life. "She became weirdly enchanted with schedules," Ponders writes, "with details, and saw how they could be used to advantage, to demonstrate competence and fill the vacancies left by an ambivalent heart."

The Art of Uncontrolled Flight presents a number of brief, precisely described scenes that are meant to convey an enormous amount of information about Annie's life and emotional development. In the first part of the book, this method works well. The second and third sections, though, make the novel sound as if it's coming to us over a bad cell phone connection. We catch tantalizing snippets about her experience in the Air Force Academy and on the flight crew of surveillance planes in Saudi Arabia during the 1991 Gulf War. We pick up some intense moments of an affair with another pilot in the desert and a troubled marriage with a geologist back in the States. But so much falls between the cracks of this impressionistic mosaic that we seem to be reading highlights of a much longer manuscript.

That's a shame because these highlights are often powerful. Battle scenes involving Annie's fellow pilots in Somalia, Kosovo and Afghanistan explode off the page, but Ponders has spent so little time developing these characters that we barely know who they are. The climax of the novel is a vertiginous, white-knuckled description of a missile attack that's packed with moral and legal implications, but even though Ponders knows how to land a badly damaged AWACS plane, she bails out on the job of grounding this crisis in sufficient resolution. Instead, a few broad strokes cover what Scott Turow would have explored with engaging drama.

Especially when conveying what Annie's experiences mean, Ponders tends to announce themes that fuller dramatic development would have illustrated. "The trick to being a woman in the military," we're told, "was to make yourself stand out, but only in a way that would leave them speechless. . . . As a woman pilot, you had to do everything twice as well." There follows a rather stilted argument with a chauvinist colleague that sounds like a sensitivity-training skit called What Women in the Military Are Up Against: "You have to fight just to stand still. Some want you to succeed. Some want you to fail. But everybody looks at you as a woman first, and that's ultimately what will keep you from being a great officer."

Back home in Texas with her husband, Dexter -- whose appearance earlier in the novel is so unexplained that the stork must have brought him -- we're plunged into an argument we can't possibly follow from what little we know of their relationship. "So you finally get to be a martyr," Dexter tells Annie, "what you've always wanted to be." Later, Annie complains that "Dexter says I'm too dramatic." Despite the emphasis placed on these final assessments of her character, we haven't seen anything to suggest either a martyr complex or a particularly dramatic nature. In fact, Annie seems distinctly cool and clever at avoiding responsibility, yet the novel makes no effort to explore this incongruity.

At last month's National Book Festival, Tom Wolfe complained about young debut novelists who cannibalize their own lives so thoroughly that they have nothing interesting left for a second book. Ponders is a rare exception: the talented writer who holds so much back from her debut that we're frustrated for more. *

Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World.